UNITY: Presidential Debate Moderators Fails to Reflect Nation’s Diversity

With the first presidential debate of the 2008 campaign days away, UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc. wants to ensure this will be the last election cycle that fails to include women or people of color as moderators.

UNITY, the largest organization of journalists in the world, calls on the Commission on Presidential Debates to reevaluate a process that has failed to recognize the nation’s changing demographics and has selected only one woman of color and one man of color to moderate presidential debates in the commission’s 20-year history.

“The journalists who were selected as moderators this year are outstanding, respected members of the profession. It is a glaring oversight, however, to have such a lack of diversity in a nation and an election where race, gender and age play such significant roles,” said UNITY President Karen Lincoln Michel, during a meeting of the UNITY board of directors last week.

Jim Lehrer of PBS will moderate the debate on Sept. 26; Tom Brokaw of NBC News on Oct. 7, and Bob Schieffer of CBS News on Oct 15.

At its recent annual fall meeting, the UNITY Board of Directors denounced the apparent pattern of exclusion and resolved to work with the commission to achieve greater diversity in future election cycles.

“While it is significant that a woman of color will moderate the vice presidential candidate debate, the dearth of diversity in the higher-profile presidential debates is extremely disturbing,” said Barbara Ciara, president of National Association of Black Journalists.  “Gwen Ifill moderated the vice presidential debate in 2004. It couldn’t have been that difficult to elevate her to one of the presidential debates.”

Ifill, of PBS’ NewsHour and Washington Week, will moderate the vice presidential debate on Oct. 2. Ifill is an African American.

“This issue occurs because so few of the nation’s news outlets employ journalists of color to cover national politics, a fact underscored in a study by UNITY and Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University,” said O. Ricardo Pimentel, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “In a recent interview on PBS, Bob Schieffer even noted the lack of women and people of color in key reporting positions and said that led the commission ‘to go to three old white guys’ when choosing moderators for the debates.”

The UNITY study was released in July during UNITY’s national conference in Chicago and found that journalists of color make up only 13 percent of Washington press corps.

“It is difficult to understand the thought process that would allow these debates to have such a narrow spectrum in a nation where people of color will soon be a majority of the population,” said Ronnie Washines, president of Native American Journalists Association. “There is also the additional irony of this being the first presidential election in U.S. history where the candidates so clearly demonstrate the changing diversity of this country.”

In an interview with TV Week, Frank Fahrenkoph, debate commission co-chair, said he had received “absolutely nothing but positive remarks . . . from the general political realm” about the choice of moderators.

“I am not sure who is included in Mr. Fahrenkoph’s view of the ‘general political realm,’ but it apparently is not the millions of people of color, women and young people who should be represented in the discussions about who will be the next president of the United States,” said Jeannie Mariani-Belding, president of the Asian American Journalists Association.

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